Lately, conversations regarding fake news, alternative facts, sensationalism, and fear-mongering have plagued the discourse of the nation. Some have (to varying degrees of sincerity) pointed to us living in a “post-truth” era—a time when truth is unknowable. This, of course, is a misnomer…as long as science is used as a basis for understanding. Unfortunately, many don’t use the scientific method to evaluate information.
But we all should; it can save us.
The advance of the internet and digital media has allowed fake news items and clickbait to have a pronounced effect on our conversations—and our minds. Of course, propaganda has been around much longer than even traditional media, but now it can be disseminated with a simple click, and that kind of power can have disastrous consequences.
Take the “pizzagate” conspiracy as an example. A man entered an innocent establishment and fired shots from a semi-automatic weapon based off of fabricated information aimed at harming Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. But “fake news” is not reserved for just the political arena. The entire anti-vaccination movement is rooted in erroneous and misleading reports. The resurgence of dangerous diseases, such as measles, can be directly attributed to the efforts of anti-vaxxers who post erroneous information.
And then there are the “alternative facts.” Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to Donald Trump, recently stated that “a provable falsehood” uttered by one of Trump’s team was really just an “alternative fact.” Let’s be clear: A fact either is or is not. There is no alternative.
But, if you are ever having trouble sorting through the “alternative facts” and “fake news,” just turn to science.
Science is not in the business of making claims of infallibility. In science, nothing is ever really 100% certain because science is always open to new evidence. Plenty of findings in the scientific community have been refuted after the discovery of new evidence. But here is the key: Science makes it really easy to tell what is not true.
In an article for Scientific American, Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik explain the importance of the scientific method in relation to truth and falsehood:
A fundamental tenet of science is that, whereas no amount of data can verify a hypothesis, a single contradictory observation will refute it. In other words, hypotheses cannot be proven true, though they can be proven false. If there is one thing the scientific method excels at, it is disproving propositions.
Thus, the saving grace of a public discourse riddled with disingenuous rhetoric is the scientific method. The method is a procedural means of extracting truth from conflicting information, even information that comes from our own fallible senses. According to Martinez-Conde and Macknik, “Our neural wiring is such that it is virtually impossible for humans to think, or even see, in absolute terms.” The scientific method can parse out these unavoidable contours and locate what is correct.
The scientific method starts with a question. Systematic observation is the beginning of that foundation. Our senses give way to a hypothesis and then data. Data is the evidence that can inform us of reality. This data is distilled using careful experimentation. Fake news and other beguiling discourses can easily be based in sensory information distorted by perception, but data gathered in experimentation (properly following the scientific method) does not allow for this distortion.
So we have: Observation, hypothesis, testing, data, conclusion. That is the scientific method.
Aside from generating concrete evidence in the form of data, science also allows for another way in which we are able to separate truth from lies. Consistency in the conclusions drawn from retesting an experiment’s findings also brings us closer to absolute truth.
The point is this: The public’s insistence on (and ability to search for) evidence is what will stop the proliferation of fake news and alternative facts. Testing the evidence that is put forth will stop falsehoods dead in their tracks. Just use science.